As the state Legislature convenes for a mostly virtual 2021 session, Senate Minority Leader John Braun — whose 20th district includes most of Lewis County — shares a common priority of getting financial aid into the hands of businesses. His plan, as the leading Senate Republican, is to push to allow them to reopen with fewer barriers.
“The biggest issue is we should have a light touch on all of them,” Braun told The Chronicle last week. “And that’s code for we shouldn’t be thinking of new taxes in an environment like this.”
While he acknowledged that the state’s economy bounced back from earlier pandemic-driven blows faster than expected, he also argued that lawmakers interested in any new taxes should wait for the pandemic to blow over, saying “this is just not the right year to do that.”
In 2021, that likely means fighting against Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed capital gains tax, which he says is meant to address the state’s regressive tax structure by targeting a small percentage of wealthy residents. Also included in the governor’s proposed budget is a new tax on health care plans to fund public health.
Early in the session, Braun, R-Centralia, said he has his eye on “early action spending” to help businesses, likely in the form of bolstering the state’s unemployment insurance fund. A recently-filed bill would also allow businesses to fully reopen in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. He’d also like to see the Legislature — rather than Inslee — allocate funding authorized by Congress. It's part of a larger goal by the state’s Republican Party to wrestle more control back from the governor.
In terms of public health and the pandemic response, Braun said he wants to improve how long-term care facilities work to prevent infecting aging Washingtonians. Specifically, he cited the concern of health care workers rotating between different facilities and potentially spreading the virus. It’ll be a challenge to prevent that, Braun said, as workers will likely have to be compensated through unemployment for limiting their work. But he contends it’s an important way to protect a population disproportionately represented in COVID-19 deaths.
He also critiqued vaccine distribution within the state, which has so far been slow, with some criticizing the Department of Health’s delay in publishing information on who has and will get inoculated.
“We’ve had 10 months to plan for this, folks,” Braun said, although he didn’t note any specific legislative plans to address the issues.
Looking more locally, the third-term senator said his priorities include flood mitigation, housing and childcare.
This March, the Office of Chehalis Basin will present recommendations to the Legislature regarding the proposed Chehalis River dam, which faces significant hurdles from environmental impact statements (EIS) and opposition by the Chehalis Tribe and the Quinault Indian Nation. While Braun — and sitting Lewis County commissioners — want to see the dam get built, he said the project is in a more challenging place than it was a year ago.
“The federal (EIS) is frankly, I think, better done,” Braun said in comparison to the state’s EIS, which prompted concerns and opposition from the tribes. “Where a year ago we felt like we were on, not by any means a short path, but on a better path at the time with the tribes.”
Another local priority is childcare in the region, which has been described as a “childcare desert.” It’s something Braun doesn’t think can be solved by the public sector, calling it a “state-caused problem” spurred by too many regulations.
“We just drove (childcare centers) out of business, and we’ve got to stop doing that,” he said. “People have been taking care of other people’s kids for thousands of years, and we just made it too complicated.”
Characterizing housing as a “disaster in our state,” Braun said the state government should stay out of that issue as well. He pointed to the Growth Management Act — state laws that require growing jurisdictions to create comprehensive growth plans and consider things like sprawl, affordability, and environmental issues — as a major hindrance to building housing.
The 2021 session began Monday. Like many state Republicans, Braun disagrees with the decision to hold it mostly remotely — a move supporters say will prevent COVID-19 transmission while simultaneously providing more accessibility to residents around the state wishing to participate.
“I continue to insist that’s a mistake,” Braun said. “I don’t know if people fully appreciate yet how big a deal that is. And if we have to do that — and I’m not convinced we have to do it to the level being insisted upon by the majority — then there should be an obligation not to run controversial bills that the public can’t weigh in on.”